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Seen and Heard International Concert


Ravel, Mahler, Sibelius, David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone), Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, David Atherton (conductor), Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, China, 19th November 2004 (AO)

Hong Kong is a dynamic city, where the pace of life is frantic, where activity never stops. Yet beneath the confident materialism, there is an awareness that fortune is temporal, that the line between happiness and tragedy is thin. This programme for the evening was inspired: Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Sibelius' Second Symphony. All three works are lyrical pieces that mask undertones of something darker and more unsettling.

Ravel first wrote the Mother Goose pieces for children, based on nursery tales from the French fables of Mother Goose. Here, however, we heard the 1912 orchestration, more complex and with extra levels. Despite the whimsical programme, they are more than just children’s pieces. The ‘pavanne’ depicts the sleeping beauty, an ambiguous figure, neither dead nor alive. Atherton takes the movement very slowly indeed, the lack of tension compensated only by the pathos of the flute solo. More animated was the third piece, with the pseudo orientalism so beloved of western composers of that period. Here, it was played by musicians who know the difference between real Chinese music and western approximations. They played with gusto, the xylophone and gong effects coming across with panache and a wicked sense of humour. The bassoons added a disturbing sense of menace to the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ sequence, heightened by massed ‘cellos, violas and basses. The last movement was gain very slow, as befits a dream sequence, but was somewhat soporific.

Mahler's Kindertotenlieder expresses the nightmare of the death of children. These are heart-rending songs, Mahler scored with dignity and feeling, his uncompromising lack of sentimentality making their impact all the more intense. David Wilson-Johnson has had a long career in opera, and in English song. His German here was rather insecure, and at several points, the music put unkind pressure on his voice. Nonetheless, the orchestra, founded some hundred years ago, had a real feel for Mahler, producing some very inspired playing. The chamber-like clarity of the music was brought out very effectively, Atherton conducting groups of players as if they were single instruments. They responded with precision and a real sense of communal communication. In ensemble, it might seem illogical to pick out one element in the whole as outstanding, but the excellence of the cor anglais solo, by Gao Yang, deserves special emphasis. In ‘Wenn dien Mutterlein,’ he really shone, and deserves particular mention. The whole oboe section were in a league of their own, their playing notably fluent and evocative. Indeed, it was the quality of the orchestral playing that made these songs work, the instruments duetting with the voice, and commenting on the text, with poignant beauty. It was a pleasure to focus on this aspect of the music for a change, listening to the way that the instruments "sing" in their unique way, too. The gentleness of Atherton's approach here bore fruit in the final part of ‘In diesem Wetter,’ where the bassoons and strings produced a lullaby-like tenderness, concluding the cycle with an image of the lost children, safe "as though in their mother's house", protected forever from storm and suffering.

The combination of lyricism and more equivocal undertones again surfaced in Sibelius' Second Symphony. The composer's characteristic figures for strings, brass and winds, his own "forest murmurs", evoke wind, the rustling of leaves and water, and awaken in the listener images of the sounds of nature. In the second movement Atherton brought from the musicians some subtle effects: firm but quiet drumming, beating on the larger strings, like "footsteps," which reminded me of parts in the Ravel suite. The bassoon melody rose from this beautifully, and the massed strings hummed like a swarm of demented bees. Beneath the pastoralism, something more sinister and unknowable lurked. The ever-superb oboe section again showed the calibre of their playing in the third movement, full throated and romantic, yet tinged with a sadness that is so typical of Sibelius. The well-known passage for brass, trumpets blaring, was somewhat understated in this quiet approach to the symphony, but in the finale, the orchestra pulled together in a rousing climax.

There were a large number of children in the audience, well behaved and some clearly absorbed in what they were listening to. Presumably, they didn't understand the words in Kindertotenlieder. Perhaps the programme, with its theme of childhood and pastoralism, might have persuaded some parents to bring them. However, local custom does not segregate children from adult activities. Children here learn from an early age that serious music can be for them, too.

Anne Ozorio

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